Last Updated on 8th June 2023
Paul T Davies reviews Peter Morgan’s play Patriots now playing at the Noel Coward Theatre, London.
Boris Berezovsky. A name almost forgotten amongst the deluge of news that we receive every day, every hour. A corrupt, billionaire businessman who thrived under Yeltsin’s chaotic, partying Russia and the man credited with getting Putin the presidency. His regret at appointing the wrong man, and the rise of Putin from dedicated KGB operative to the leader we now know, is powerfully portrayed in Peter Morgan’s excellent play. Morgan utilizes his skills, as evidenced in The Crown and The Audience, in condensing decades of history into a cohesive historical play that entertains and educates. Rupert Goold’s production is fast-paced, moves beautifully on Miriam Buether’s fluid, bar stool and multi-layered set, and performed by an excellent ensemble.
In the lead as Berezovsky is the outstanding Tom Hollander, radiating arrogance and belief, a patriot to his version of Russia. If his performance sometimes gets close to histrionic, especially in the second half, the show needs that grandeur of despair and anger, and he is equally effective in conveying what the man lost in exile. Olivier Award winner Will Keen, (for Best Supporting Actor in clearly a shared lead role), undergoes a remarkable metamorphosis as Putin, his walk, his stance, his glare piercing into the auditorium.
The clashes between the two men are set pieces of theatrical dynamism, it’s a shame exile meant we don’t see more face-to-face encounters in Act Two, but the power shift is superbly staged and performed. Victims are represented by Alexander Litvinenko, a beautifully judged performance by Josef Davies, whose rushing off to keep a tea-drinking appointment will have your heart beating in dismay, and Stefanie Martini gives a dignified, strong performance as Marina Litvinenko. For all its brashness and power, there are scenes of tenderness between Berezovsky and his maths Professor Perelman, beautifully realised by Ronald Guttman representing a Russia, possibly romanticised, now beyond reach for Berezovsky. With the manipulation of the news media, the Russian expansion into satellite states, corrupt legal systems and leaders, the play thrums with frightening topicality. Yet the quality of the writing never makes it feel like a lecture, the human cost is kept central.
Sound designer and composer Adam Cork provides an atmosphere of Russia that we in the West hold in our imaginations. As with every episode of Succession, we are horrified by the characters and their actions, but we cannot look away, and we know billionaires have few qualms about destroying the planet. (There’s an interesting portrayal of Roman Abramovich, enigmatically brought to life by Luke Thallon- excellent stage presence). It’s a play about patriotism, of course, and Misha Glenny’s quote, “In the end, Russia’s history was written by a patriot with all the zealotry and blind spots that come with patriotism”, echoes through the auditorium as we watch that zealotry consume the characters. Highly recommended.